Times Square? Been there. Carnegie Deli? Done that.
During the 30-some years I’ve lived in Connecticut, I have visited New York City often enough to have harvested the low-hanging fruit, destination-wise. So these days I try to veer off the touristy path to take in some of the city’s less obvious attractions.
That’s how I found myself spending one sunny weekend gazing at an apartment filled with actual dirt, viewing an exhibition about the sex lives of animals, sipping spiked cider at a former speakeasy, examining shrunken heads in an oddball antiques shop and seriously considering buying a jar containing a fetal badger for my son.
You know — that kind of thing.
This 15-year-old museum is devoted to every conceivable aspect of hanky-panky. The MoSEX, as it abbreviates itself, celebrates all things carnal, starting in its gift shop, whose big, street-level windows offer even the most casual passerby an eyeful. I browsed shelves filled with erotic reading material and scrutinized accessories I never knew I needed — and might not know what to do with once I brought them home. After surveying the array, from socks to vibrators, I settled for filling a goodie bag at the specialty condom bar.
Access to the museum is for adults only — and, yes, they do card. Once in, I wandered through galleries containing objects from the permanent collection and special exhibitions that explore the X-rated world in serious or playful or sometimes silly ways.
Perhaps the silliest is “Funland: Pleasures and Perils of the Erotic Fairground,” an installation by conceptual artists Sam Bompas and Harry Parr that features “carnival attractions” like you’ve never seen. For starters, I worked my way through the Tunnel of Love, a maze built to resemble the central element of a woman’s nether anatomy. There’s also a bounce house filled with ginormous stuffed breasts and a row of naughty arcade games, complete with enthusiastic barkers.
Upstairs, a spacious gallery with wall-mounted exhibits reminiscent of a high school science fair and huge sculptures (by Rune Olsen) of interestingly occupied animals offers information about sex among non-humans. There I learned that pandas in captivity are rather fond of porn. And that dolphins . . . oh, never mind.
My most memorable Museum of Sex moment occurred when I rounded a doorway into “The Eve of Porn,” a special exhibition about Linda Lovelace, and beheld a huge, wall-mounted video screen showing a clip of the iconic porn star doing the deed for which she will always be best known. This, I promise, is a sight not easily unseen.
It was time to seek something less stimulating. Walter De Maria’s Earth Room is about what it sounds like: an otherwise nondescript apartment filled knee-deep with dirt. A serious, well-respected work of art installed in 1977 and opened to public view in 1980, the Earth Room is eccentric, for sure, but also oddly compelling. Standing in the doorway, separated from all that dirt by a hip-height sheet of Plexiglas and inhaling the loamy aroma, I was struck less by the strangeness than by the contemplative calm it evoked. I was the sole visitor during the few minutes I spent there, which may have contributed to my feelings.
The Earth Room, I learned, requires more maintenance than you might expect. A young staff member explained that the dirt must be watered and raked and the floors have had to be reinforced to bear the dirt’s 280,000-pound weight. And in the hot summer months, the Earth Room takes a breather: This summer it will be closed from June 15 to Sept. 9.
In theory, nothing could interest me less than the history of organized crime. So I had hoped to just pop into the Museum of the American Gangster, take a quick look around and pop back out. But the young woman manning the admissions desk had other ideas: The full tour, which she’d be leading, would take an hour and a half. When I explained I hadn’t budgeted that kind of time, she offered to skip the part that dealt with Prohibition and gangsters as national phenomena and focus on what happened right there on site. As it happened, my one fellow tour-taker and I got so caught up in the story, we ended up staying for more than an hour, after all.
The museum features lowproduction-value displays of such objects as John Dillinger’s two death masks, a tommy gun and bullets recovered after the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. I skimmed through that part before starting the tour, which turned out to be a riveting tale of intrigue set in “Scheib’s place,” the informal name for a speakeasy near St. Mark’s Place that was popular among the city’s elite during the Prohibition period in the 1920s.
Patrons, we learned, would stop in at a certain butcher shop and ask to see Scheib. The butcher would say, “He’s in the back,” and the customer would go to the rear of the store and through a doorway leading to a private courtyard, where he or she would wait to enter the speakeasy, which featured a big-band-style ballroom and a grand horseshoe-shaped bar.
The story of Walter Scheib, the bootlegger/gangster Frank Hoffman and the joint’s eventual owner Howard Otway takes many twists and turns involving betrayal, deception, theft, a secret tunnel leading to the East River and a mystery surrounding a pair of safes. The tour ends in what remains of the original speakeasy bar, where I could have sampled absinthe served traditionally — a ritual involving a special glass and spoon and a sugar cube. It was a cold day, so I went for whiskey-spiked hot cider instead.
The Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn is devoted to “exploring the intersection of death and beauty and that which falls between the cracks.”
Like the Museum of Sex, this funky museum leads with its gift shop. And what a gift shop it is! The shelves are lined with jars containing the preserved fetuses of small animals (that badger!), baboon-paw candlesticks (antiques, so the ecological damage was done long ago) and a series of models of blemished faces representing the many and varied stages of syphilis. Several items, including a set of mid-19th-century hearse finials, are from the collection of board member Evan Michelson, whom we’ll come back to in a moment.
An upstairs gallery holds a temporary exhibition somehow related to the museum’s overarching theme; for reasons unclear to me, the focal point was a set of large, lively dioramas featuring taxidermy squirrels hanging out at a bar. The museum also has a research library packed with books and death-related artifacts for scholarly study. I was surprised at how many people, particularly young people dressed in black, were hanging out there — some reading, others apparently doing research.
I was glad I stopped in. And I plan to go back — to do some Christmas shopping.
Fans of the Science Channel series “Oddities” will recognize the aforementioned Evan Michelson as of one of the show’s stars, the co-owner of the East Village shop Obscura. That’s where I headed next.
On TV, the shop looks way bigger than it actually is. The tiny space is so packed with curiosities there’s hardly room to walk around. Need an antique, wooden dynamite plunger? They’ve got one! A zebra-foot lamp? Score. A shrunken head or two? Check.
I lingered over a case of vintage pharmaceuticals that included a vial of something called nux vomica and another labeled “endocroids.” And I resisted the urge to touch the oddly adorable, five-legged, two-headed calf — but only because it had a sign saying “Please do not pet me.”
I was on the verge of oddity overload by the time I went looking for Mmuseumm, whose Web site describes it as “a modern natural history museum devoted to the curation and exhibition of contemporary artifacts that illustrate the complexities of the modern world.” It turned out to be my favorite oddball stop of all.
My cabbie furrowed his brow when he heard the address on Cortlandt Alley. Clearly he’d never had occasion to drive anyone there before, despite its closeto-Chinatown location. But his GPS device got me to the closest big intersection, where I assured him I could find my destination.
As I started down the sidewalk and turned left at the corner, I noticed the taxi creeping along beside me, the driver apparently not convinced I knew what I was doing. He and I spotted the Cortlandt sign at the same instant; he tooted his horn and pointed to make sure I’d in fact seen it before he picked up speed and drove off.
Talk about less obvious attractions! I walked up and down the short alley several times in search of the mmuseumm. I checked my notes; I had just the day before confirmed that the place was still in operation. Where the heck was it?
Finally, I noticed that the industrial, heavily padlocked metal doorway I stood in front of had three small windows cut into it and a few small plaques, one of which announced that this was the mmuseumm and explained how to explore it.
Following those instructions, I dialed 888-763-8839 on my phone and got a recording telling me I had, in fact, accessed the Mmuseumm. Peering through one of the windows, I could see hundreds of objects displayed on cheap shelves along the back and side walls of the closet-size space (formerly a freight elevator shaft) within. There were Cabbage Patch Kids, a shoe, a row of differentcolored plastic spoons, and a selection of moss samples, each with a label displaying a number. I selected one and typed its number on my keypad, summoning another brief recorded message that described the object and explained its import. So, peering and typing and listening, I learned that the shoe on display was famous for having been lobbed at President George W. Bush. And the spoon collection? It’s meant to highlight the role this lowly, flimsy utensil plays in our experience of eating various takeout foods.
You know — that kind of thing.
Huget is a freelance writer living near Hartford, Conn.
Museum of Sex
233 Fifth Ave.
Open Sunday-Thursday 10 a.m-
8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 10 a.m.–9 p.m. $17.50, students and seniors $15.25
The New York Earth Room
141 Wooster St.
Open Wednesday-Sunday noon-
6 p.m. (closed from 3-3:30 p.m).
Closed for the summer June 15-Sept. 9. Free.
Museum of the American Gangster
78 St. Marks Pl.
Open 1-6 p.m. daily. $15, students and seniors $12.
Morbid Anatomy Museum
424 Third Ave., Brooklyn
Open noon–6 p.m. daily. $8; students and seniors $6 ; kids 12 and younger free.
Obscura Antiques and Oddities
207 Ave. A
Open noon–8 p.m daily;
until 7 p.m. Sundays.
4 Cortlandt Alley
Temporarily closed for installation of a new exhibit. Expected to reopen soon along with Mmuseumm 2, next door. Created in collaboration with Maira Kalman and called “Sara Berman’s Closet,” Mmuseumm 2 will be a full-scale re-creation of the artist’s mother’s closet. Free; donation suggested.
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